Journey to the West: An interview with the designers of Ticket to Ride Legacy

01 November 2023
We spoke to legendary game designers Rob Daviau, Matt Leacock and Alan R. Moon about how they fused two of board gaming's greatest ideas together to create Ticket to Ride Legacy: Legends of the West

Written by Matthew Vernall

Legacy. It’s something many hard-working game designers now get the joy of experiencing. When your standout games are close to celebrating their 10th or 20th anniversary, it’s hard not to think about your place in this industry, itself ostensibly 40 years young if you consider the gaming boom that began in the 80s (with the releases of D&D, Axis and Allies, Labyrinth, the list goes on) to be tabletop gaming's turning point.


Both of the gaming ‘franchises’ (if we can consider ‘Legacy’ games their own subsection of the hobby) that came together to make this game have had a long and successful impact on the cultural zeitgeist of games. Ticket to Ride revolutionised the more niche community of ‘rail’ games, expanding what a railway game could be and leading to other twists and variations on the theme. Risk Legacy was certainly the epoch of Legacy design, the concept that each play permanently affected all future games, but it was Pandemic Legacy that showed the emotional power of engaging with a full story without a Games Master’s guiding influence, letting the story speak through mechanics and gameplay alone.


Seeing these two elements combined into Ticket To Ride Legacy: Legends of the West has been hotly anticipated. I was lucky enough to interview the three minds behind this potentially landmark release, namely Rob Daviau, Matt Leacock and Alan R. Moon, to talk to them about the game's past, present and possible future.


What was the early design of Ticket to Ride Legacy Like?

Whilst the announcement of the game earlier this year caught many of the gaming community by surprise, TtRL has been a long time coming. “The first date marked in Matt’s design journal is July 18th 2017” says Daviau.

“I write everything down, then immediately forget everything!” laughs Leacock.


 Such a long development cycle (not aided by Covid-19 putting dampening normal proceedings) has given them time to really look forward to experience TtRL not just as designers, but players themselves. “I’m very excited,” says Daviau, his own copy of the game sitting on his office shelf near to the Spiel Des Jahres special award he and Leacock were awarded for the landmark legacy sequel Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 (Matt’s own award being just out of camera shot, whilst Moon was calling away from home so couldn’t show his own off.) “I’ve forgotten the whole game, so I’m going to play it again.”


“I just played it!” says Moon. “I did the whole campaign a few weeks ago and we had a great time. I can’t wait until people start posting things about it.”


“We’re playing the second-to-last game of it tonight,” says Leacock. “It’s been so fun to go through it. This is actually the first legacy game that I’ve actually been able to play myself it is final form; that has been really fun.”


Looking back now on the earliest days of design, it’s clear that none of the three designers were particular precious about their previous works, happy to tear into the foundations to build something new. “I don’t think we had any preconceived notions at the start,” says Moon. “We spent our first year on design just talking ideas. I don’t think I started out thinking anything had to (or didn’t have to) be included, other than the basics like there was going to be tickets and routes. Other than that, it was pretty wide open.”


The classic carriage and locomotive cards make their return in Ticket to Ride Legacy, but with their own new twists...

“Our design journal on this is 204 pages long,” says Daviau. “The second idea on here (which we’re not going to spoil) got into the final version; you’ll find it at the end of game one.


“Many of our early entries are just dumps of ideas,” says Leacock. “There were some things from both the original games and early designs that we dropped. You’ll find out some things early into your playthrough that might surprise some people. For example, there’s no score track around the board.”


That’s right, the numerical border that has framed every Ticket to Ride variation since the first has been jettisoned, replaced with cute cardboard coins that players will covet for their coffers, with whichever company that can collect the most in a game being declared the winner.


“The idea of having events within the game that would either shape the way you played the game, or that would add narrative (or both), was in the design pretty early on." continues Leacock. "There are other ways that we introduce narrative (you can see them the moment you open the box), such as the postcards [a stack of numbered cards with covers on either end to not give a sneak peak of what’s to come] and the story deck, which players familiar to Pandemic Legacy will recognise. We’re not trying to do a ‘Lord of the Rings’ style epic narrative, but between these things we’re providing a narrative that is that wonderful mix you get in legacy games of what we’re saying the narrative is and what the players are creating through the act of playing it.”


“Our first big playtest that we had of the whole campaign was pretty flat in terms of theme,” says Moon. “Everything worked fine and it was a really good playtest, but all of us thought we needed to add a little more theme to it.

“We put Rob on the job, he wrote a bunch of stuff and I was amazed. When he first sent over the copy, I read through it all, thinking ‘This is great!’

“We were then able to shape some of the rules and new elements to fit within that new theme. When coming up with new ideas later, we were able to then also think about the theme at the same time, which was good.”


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How did they design the story for Ticket to Ride Legacy?

“It doesn’t take a lot of text,” says Leacock. “You can provide a bunch of narrative hooks and, as Rob said, players will want to fill in the blanks. We need to create the context, tell them a little bit about what’s going on and players are happy to run with it. You don’t have to write long drafts of anything for people to read.”


“The interesting thing in a legacy game, is that some people might only play four games and then not play it for five months. There isn’t going to be a ‘Previously on Ticket to Ride…’ where it summarises the story, so you need to keep things easy to retain in the mind, so the moment players are reading the next card they’ll go ‘oh right, that’s where we were!’”


“Rob and Matt are real sticklers for language,” says Moon. “One of the things I learned from them is how much detail they put into how every sentence is worded; I never would have done that kind of highly detailed. I’m really curious to see how the translations of this game turn out!”

Said theming would slowly develop as a sort of ‘prequel’ to the original Ticket to Ride: putting players back in time to the original expansion of America, as railroads meant that more people could travel further out across the continent, exploring what the Western territories had to offer.


“I think the board was always going to be North America,” says Moon. “Just because that was the one from the first game. But other than that, I don’t think any of us came to the game with any particular theming, at least not originally.”

“When did we decide it was going to be America? April 15th 2018.” says Daviau, referencing the design journal to the laughs of everyone in the call. “Thanks Matt for your fastidious note taking. That was actually the next entry into the journal after the first one. Alan likes to say that [Matt and I] are too busy and there’s some truth to this! We originally all met in-person at The Gathering of Friends [an annual tradition by Alan R. Moon where he invites various friends and design contemporaries to an invitation-only party, a long weekend of gaming, chatting and friendly competition.] It was here we went over the fundamentals: number of players, number of games in the campaign, the game length, the target release which we missed by about three years (there was a pandemic after all) and in our notes, it says specifically ‘concentrate on a US map,’ so we had decided that by then.”


The smaller game board as it appears at the start of Ticket to Ride Legacy, with jigsaw edges hinting at further expansions to come


At the start of the game, players will only have a small region of America to build their routes on, but will first need to put together the jigsaw puzzle map of North America’s East coast (sans Florida), with marked edges matching some of the eight sealed boxes, previewing where your future journeys will take you.


“I know early on we wanted to start off with a short and simple first experience,” says Leacock. “I don’t know when we settled on that idea, I just know that it worked really well.”

“It was before my 40th Birthday,” chipped in Rob. “God, I love this journal.


“I’m a sucker for maps. I love D&D and getting to explore, finding out what’s behind that hill or discovering maps to new places. I’m sure I had my thumb on the scale at some point whenever the idea of ‘let’s make a map that grows’ came up. Ticket to Ride: New York was either coming out or had just been released around our development, which is a version of TtR with a very small board. There’s something intriguing about your first game being 20-30 minutes.”


“It’s hard to talk about without spoiling anything,” says Moon. “But there was a point relating to the map design where Rob was very insistent on something neither Matt and I were on board for.”


“That definitely happened for each of us at some point in design!” says Leacock.


“We took turns being obstinate.” agrees Daviau.


“But one of them that went on for a while,” Moon continues. “When we finally did get it into the game, we both agreed that Rob was right to push for it. Thanks Rob!”

“For the record,” says Daviau. “I am wrong more often than not, but in this circumstance I got lucky.”


How  do the designers feel about their work on Ticket to Ride Legacy?


It’s clear when talking to the three of them that they have a great deal of respect and appreciation for one another. “When we first started meeting on Zoom,” says Moon. “It was a bit like I was watching an old married couple. I was having a great time just seeing It took a few months for me to fit in within the group, but when it happened it was great. I can easily tell you that this has been the greatest game design experience of my life. I wish everyone could have the experience of working with these two. Not only are the two of them incredibly fun and talented guys, they have a method of design that I was really curious about. It was fascinating to be able to be a part of that.”


“It was great working with Alan,” says Leacock. “Not only did he bring all sorts of domain knowledge for TtR, but one thing a lot of people don’t know about Alan is how he brings all sorts of crazy ideas to the table. It was fun hearing the stuff that came out; I didn’t expect Alan to be so willing to experiment with such a wide array of crazy ideas. He challenged us to think broader on many occasions as well.”

“That’s true,” agrees Daviau. “I thought that, because TtR was Alan’s baby, he would come in having done all these expansions with a list of do’s and don’ts, then he’d be the one with ideas like ‘I think we need clowns driving zeppelins.’ We just be immediately taken aback, but build on that idea and shape it to something amazing.


“I really enjoy three-person design teams: you’ll often get two people saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ on an idea. Maybe sometimes the other person will still stick to their guns and get a minority victory, but otherwise it created a great flow of ideas. One thing that Matt and I were good at (And now Matt, Alan and I are now good at) is the idea ‘let’s just try it for the next playtest.’ If it goes wrong, usually the person who put forward the idea would go ‘my bad, that didn’t work at all,’ as there’s no stakes in it, no reason to feel bad for trying.”


“The most interesting thing about that,” says Moon. “Is that now I’ve played all the way through the completed campaign, I remember it playing so much better than when we had originally settled on those ideas. It got more refined and played better through our work together.”


A smattering of the new components waiting to be discovered in Ticket to Ride Legacy


Whilst players around the world are eagerly waiting at the station for their latest TtR journey to begin, the designers are already full of ideas should this game prove successful enough to get a sequel. “Looking back on the design now, since we’ve all stopped working on TtRL, we’ve all had lots of ideas for the next one.” Says Moon. “I keep thinking about all of the things we could have put in this one, though it’s not like I felt that we needed to put any of them in; there’s just so many other things that we could have done too.


“I think the thing that always surprises people about TtR is the different expansions; I can see the legacy concept being just as open to being expanded upon to."


Ticket to Ride Legacy: Legends of the West will be available for sale from Friday 3rd November. You can read our review of it now in Issue 84 of Tabletop Gaming Magazine.


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